Leandro funding recommendations: Much lower than reported, readily affordable

By: - February 7, 2020 6:00 am

Despite the alarm and denial with which they have been greeted in some circles, the recent recommendations of a national education research group to the presiding judge in North Carolina’s 26-year-old Leandro education finance lawsuit are quite reasonable and within the state’s capacity to readily implement.

Indeed, according to national experts, North Carolina doesn’t have to break the bank in order to finally begin meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with a good education. A careful review of the recommendations in WestEd’s “Leandro report” (“Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina”), reveals that North Carolina must only make an effort to fund our schools that is in-line with the national average. This means that the report’s recommendations are well within reach.

It’s true that the report’s recommendations around funding can be confusing. But the authors provided additional information at the last meeting of the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education showing that the recommended spending levels are far below what the many media reports and politicians have indicated.

The table below shows what North Carolina’s annual budgets for public schools would look like if the General Assembly followed the report’s recommendations. In keeping with the report’s recommendations, the figures below include adjustments to account for future inflation and enrollment growth.

As the table shows, public school funding would increase from $10.5 billion to $14.8 billion, an increase of $4.3 billion. Of course, that figure accounts for inflation and projected enrollment increases. That equates to $3.7 billion in today’s dollars. In addition to these increased investments in our K-12 schools, the report calls for increasing early childhood investments by $1.2 billion.

This stands in sharp contrast to how the report has been described in several news media stories. Most such accounts have described the report as calling for $8 billion of additional funding – a figure that overstates the true size of the recommendations by more than 60 percent. It’s important that all parties – lawmakers, legislative staff, state and local education administrators, advocates and media outlets – begin getting this right, as the mischaracterization of the report’s funding recommendations could easily hamper efforts to get the state to finally meet its constitutional obligations to children.

It’s also important to note how affordable these recommended funding increases are. Under the recommended funding schedule, the largest annual increase in funding would be just 8.38 percent. This is well within historical precedent. In fact, North Carolina has enacted larger annual increases in 15 of the last 50 years.

Another way to examine affordability of the report’s recommendations is school “funding effort” – that is, how much a state is spending on education in proportion to the size of its economy. According to the most recent data in this area, North Carolina ranks 48th in the nation in school funding effort and dead last among states in the South.

The data confirm that if North Carolina merely devoted the same share of its economy to funding public schools as other states, spending would need to be increased by about $3.6 billion. In other words, the essence of the WestEd funding recommendation is that North Carolina  needs only to match the average school funding effort made by other states in order to finally deliver students a constitutional education.

Of course, the WestEd report has much to say about how state and local school leaders should spend these additional funds, and many more details will need to be hashed out over the coming months to turn the report recommendations into actionable policy. There is a lot of work to be done in order for North Carolina to finally meet its obligation of providing every child in this state with a good education system. But let’s not let the WestEd report’s quite reasonable, even modest, funding recommendations (or misunderstandings about those recommendations) get in the way of what we need to do for our kids.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.